The Amazing Mr. Benn*, Air Commodore Viscount Stansgate, DSO., DFC., RAF

Richard Maddox

THE RT. HON VISCOUNT STANSGATE, DSO, DFC, Secretary of State for Air, photographed whilst serving as Air Commodore, Picture issued 1945. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference CH 16273. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205455340.

THE RT. HON VISCOUNT STANSGATE, DSO, DFC, Secretary of State for Air, photographed whilst serving as Air Commodore, Picture issued 1945. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference CH 16273. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205455340.

WHILE RE-LISTENING to a podcast associated with the excellent ‘One Night in December – The story of Lancaster LM582 and its crew on the night of the 17/18th of December 1944’ blog, I was reminded of one of the many anomalies that tumble out of the stories of people caught up in conflict.

According to Adrian Woolrich-Burt in the ‘One Night…‘ podcast no.3 (How many aircrew can you fit in the back room of a pub?), William Wedgwood Benn – also known as Viscount Stansgate and father of British Labour Party politician Antony Wedgwood Benn – was the oldest member of RAF Bomber Command to fly operationally. He was 67 at the time. (1)

Even in Political Wings: William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate (a biography by Alun Wyburn-Powell) specific details are hard to come by

Firm information regarding the squadron or squadrons he flew with, the number of sorties he completed, on what dates and even the type of aircraft he crewed – a Handley Page Halifax, a Short Sunderland maritime patrol bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and a Boeing Flying Fortress  are all mentioned on the same page in the biography – are difficult to find in readily-accessible sources, although there is probably material in his family archives. (2)

However there is enough information available to suggest that although he had risen to the rank of Air Commodore, he trained and flew as a air gunner in the final year of the war.

Interestingly Adrian first came across the story in the late 1990s when he met an ex-navigator who had flown during the war on De Havilland Mosquito aircraft. (3)

Born in May 1877 he had served as an army officer in the First World War – even though he was 37  when the conflict began and he as commissioned into the British army before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. (4) (5)

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 4 June 1917 and a Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1918 for his part in a bombing raid on an enemy airfield. By the end of the war he had added the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour. (6)

With peace restored Benn returned to political life, having been elected a Liberal Party Member of the Houses of Parliament (as his father had been before him) in 1906. Serving a different constituency from 1918 he resigned from the Liberal Party in 1927 and stood down from Parliament.

Joining the Labour party he became a Member of Party for Aberdeen North in 1928, and later served as Secretary of State for India under Ramsay MacDonald before loosing his parliamentary seat in 1931.

He would return six years later and during his parliamentary career championed the rights of refugees and those interned as enemy aliens by the authorities.

In 1940 he rejoined the RAF as a probationary Flying Officer and following rapid promotion was appointed an Air Commodore in 1944. (7)

He was also Mentioned in Despatches. (8)

Flying Officer Michael Wedgwood Benn, DFC., 1943. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference CH 010775. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205450335.

Flying Officer Michael Wedgwood Benn, DFC., 1943. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference CH 010775. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205450335.

In late June 1944 his eldest son Michael, serving with No.21 Squadron RAF was killed after his De Havilland Mosquito FB Mk VI NS837 crashed near RAF Thorney Island in Hampshire, England. Although he was rescued by his navigator he died of his injuries. (9)

He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium and is also commemorated at Steeple Congregational Church in Essex. (10) (11)

He had previously flown Bristol Beaufighter night fighter aircraft with No. 153 Squadron RAF in the Meditteranean theatre and was awarded the DFC on 20 August 1943.

His second son Antony – better known as Labour politician Tony Benn after he renounced his hereditary title in 1963- was also serving with the RAF.(12) 

Possibly the death of Michael touched Viscount Stansgate in a way that made him want to become involved in front line operations and this may have been the catalyst for him training as an air gunneR.

Finally although Viscount Stansgate was perhaps the oldest member of Bomber Command to fly operationally, he was not the oldest to die.

That unfortunate ‘honour’ goes to Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (a Conservative Member of Parliament for Hitchin), who was aged 56. (13) 

He was serving as an air gunner with No. 37 Squadron RAF when his Vickers Wellington bomber was lost on an operation to Nieuport on 31 May 1940. Both he and his pilot are buried at Eringhem Churchyard, Nord, France. (14) (15) 

Viscount Stansgate survived the war and died in November 1960.

Sources

(1) https://soundcloud.com/one-night-in-december/podcast-3 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(2) Political Wings: William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate by Alun Wyburn-Powell. Published by Pen and Sword Aviation, 2015. Page 170.

(3) Correspondence between author and Adrian Woolrich-Burt, December 2019.

(4) https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/william-wedgwood-benn-mp-and-war-hero/ – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(5) https://faithinwartime.wordpress.com/tag/michael-benn/– retrieved 8 December 2019.

(6) Air 76/34/52. File held by UK National Archives.

(7) https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/35900/supplement/756 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(8) https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/36866/supplement/60 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(9) https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/165368 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(10) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2430735/benn,-the-hon.-michael-julius-w./ – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(11)  https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/name/1442767 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(12)  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/mar/14/tony-benn-obituary – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(13) https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp71193/sir-arnold-talbot-wilson – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(14)  http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?1622-Oldest-killed-member-of-RAF-aircrew – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(15)  https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2276532/wilson,-sir-arnold-talbot/ – retrieved 8 December 2019.

* A little background…

Mr. Benn: The title of this blog refers to not only Viscount Stansgate but also a well-known animated children’s televison programme shown in Britain, first shown in the early 1970s and a series of books by David McKee.

At the start of each story Mr. Benn – wearing his customary dark jacket and shoes, pinstriped trousers, white shirt, neatly knotted striped tie, and bowler hat and white hankerchief in his top pocket – would visit a fancy dress shop where the owner would invite him to try on a fancy dress outfit.

He would take his outfit to the changing room and dress as his chosen character – a spaceman, a chef, or a zoo keeper and more.

He would then go through another door in the changing room and emerge into his character’s world. There he would do something to correct a problem or somehow make life better for someone he met before returning to the shop and changing back into his everyday life. (A) (B)

Given the varied military and political career of Viscount Stansgate – only touched on here – and his championing of the rights of individuals it seemed an apt choice of title.

(A) https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/03/cult-cartoon-star-mr-benn-film-stardom-turns-50 – retrieved 8 December 2019.

(B) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8375309.stm – retrieved 8 December 2019.

‘One Night in December’ blog and podcast:

As many will know I have (together with many people more knowledgeable than I) very occasionally helped with information for the ‘One Night…’ blog, although not as much as I would like as other commitments have eaten my time.

Through the blog Adrian Woolrich-Burt and Pete Chicken – both ex-RAF aircrew – unravel the story of a single RAF Avro Lancaster and its air crew on a flight to attack Munich in December 1944 and their return home.

Their starting point was a a wartime navigation chart Pete bought at auction in early 2009.

As the Munich raid involved 288 individual RAF aircraft, the blog tells the story of the men who flew Avro Lancaster LM582 but also touches on the story of other crews on the raid. (1)

In addition my friend and researcher Deborah has spent time in the Munich archives building the ground picture of the raid for the blog.

All this makes a detailed but very accessible blog accompanied by a very relaxed podcast conversation between Adrian and Pete signposting points in the blog and a general ‘where are we now?’ progress report as well as interviews with veterans and others who can add to the bigger picture of that one raid deep into Germany.

It’s a formula that works very well.

The blog can be found at https://onenightindecember.wordpress.com/ .

As usual – and particularly in this case – the posts on this blog don’t tell the full story. If you can add any more. particularly with details of Viscount Stansgate’s service as a gunner please get in touch. Please note that the contact email address is being revised at the moment so please comment using the form associated with the post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s